Baseball in Cyberspace There's Major-League Software for the Hard-Core Sports Fan

Article excerpt

Ah, the opening of the baseball season. The crack of the bat! The roar of the crowd! The whistle of modems! Holy Cow, sports fans, baseball has come to cyberspace.

Baseball, whether the real game or the increasingly popular form of fantasy baseball called Rotisserie, has become a showcase for the slugging power of technology and information networks.

For a fee, fans of the game can tap into vast information databases where millions of bits of baseball news, esoterica and analysis are stored, dissected and disseminated, pitch by pitch, minute by minute.

Call it data for the statistically insatiable. If football is a game of inches, baseball is becoming the game of megabytes. Equipped with desktop computers, laptops and even hand-held devices with wireless communications links, the modern fan can absorb everything about any game, whenever and wherever it is played.

"The passion that baseball fans bring to their real or fantasy leagues has resulted in the development of an extraordinary number of computer services, equal to those that arose on Wall Street," said Roger McNamee, a portfolio manager for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a high-technology venture capital firm in San Francisco.

When he is not managing portfolios, McNamee is managing a fantasy baseball team. In these Rotisserie leagues - named after the now-defunct Manhattan restaurant where the game was invented in the early 1980s - the manager of a fantasy team drafts players, sets lineups and competes with other managers, using the real statistics of real major league players as the season unfolds.

McNamee said he saw many similarities between his financial work and his sports hobby.

"They're both large games, interactive, transactional, real time, and small pieces of insight have great value," he said. "It's truly amazing to me how much money is spent on this subculture. But in every case a premium is paid for completeness, insight and immediacy."

For the companies that compile, collate and crank out the data, on-line sports statistics have become a multimillion-dollar industry. The leaders include Stats Inc., of Skokie, Ill.; Allstar Stats Inc. of Valhalla, N.Y., and the Elias Sports Bureau of Manhattan, the official statistician of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and other professional sports.

Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp., the owner of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team and a sports fanatic, has formed a company called Starwave Corp. in Bellevue, Wash. Starwave plans to begin providing sports news and statistics soon on the Interchange Online Network, based in Cambridge, Mass.

That service will put Allen in competition with Microsoft, which sells a software program called Complete Baseball. The program can be updated with fresh statistics through a computer network for $1.25 a day.

And the Prodigy computer service signed a contract last week with the ESPN sports television network, reportedly valued at $2 million, to create an interactive sports information network.

ESPN, in turn, has created a pay-per-view cable television program specifically to appeal to Rotisserie baseball players.

Meanwhile, on the Prodigy network, fans pay $125 a year to manage their own teams of fantasy players, plus additional fees for the privilege of insulting rival managers using electronic mail and electronic bulletin boards.

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Baseball's Not The Only Sport

An obsession with sports technology is not unique to baseball's so-called Roto-Geeks, as Rotisserie players are often called by purists.

Some auto-racing fans long ago learned to use scanners to eavesdrop on the conversations between the drivers of race cars and their pit crews. The same will certainly happen in football now that the NFL has approved the use of radio transceivers in quarterbacks' helmets. …